Johnson's powers elude him at Bristol
BRISTOL, Tenn. -- Jimmie Johnson has been the greatest Sprint Cup driver in the solar system the past three years. Superman, one might call him -- and he has three very large crystal trophies to prove it.
Put him at Bristol Motor Speedway, though, and he drives as if he has kryptonite under the hood.
He becomes human.
Or as Johnson likes to say, "I suck there."
Yes, this half-mile coliseum buried in the hills of Tennessee has been an Achilles' heel for the man of Kobalt. It's one of six tracks on which he hasn't found Victory Lane, the others being Chicagoland, Homestead-Miami Speedway, Michigan International Raceway, Infineon and Watkins Glen.
His average finish of 17.4 is worse than at every track except Indianapolis (20.3), Infineon (19.3) and Richmond (17.5). Indianapolis doesn't really belong on his list of "least likely to succeed" because he has won twice there and his average finish is skewed by two crashes and a blown engine.
BEWARE OF BRISTOL
Jimmie Johnson has reached a lot of milestones in his Sprint Cup career. Taming Bristol Motor Speedway is not one of them. A look at JJ's Cup career at Bristol:
But none of the other tracks confounds him like Bristol, where he goes from being graceful to being the klutz who fell off the top of a golf cart and broke his wrist.
"It's just a track that doesn't fit me," Johnson said.
His problem? A lack of rhythm.
Put Johnson at Lowe's Motor Speedway, where he participated in a Goodyear tire test on Tuesday and Wednesday, and he's a combination of Mikhail Baryshnikov and Michael Jackson.
He has won five points races on the 1.5-mile track, with an average finish of 8.9.
Or perhaps a better comparison would be Martinsville Speedway, the circuit's other half-mile track. In 14 starts, Johnson has five wins, 10 top-5s and 13 top-10s for an average finish of 5.6.
Put him at Bristol, and he'll tell you, "I can't get out of my own way." Old or new surface, it doesn't matter. In four races on the new surface, Johnson has come in 16th, 21st, 18th and 33rd and hasn't finished on the lead lap. In the three races before that, he was 10th, 30th and 36th, finishing on the lead lap just once.
"I get it right for certain periods of time in the race and practice, but lap after lap when it counts, I just haven't been able to find the rhythm around the place," Johnson said.
And it's not that he hasn't done everything short of hiring Arthur Murray to find that elusive tempo. Last season, Johnson tried the truck race. The result? Crash and 34th.
He wasn't very good there in his Nationwide Series career, either, with an average finish of 15.75 in four starts.
"We put a lot into it each time we go up," Johnson said. "I've been driving laps in my head, I've been watching videos, we've talked about car setups and worked with engineers in pinpointing what I'm looking for.
"I've even grown a beard hoping that will bring some luck to me going into that race. We've tried everything. We just don't have it there. I don't know why."
Actually, he does. He simply can't nail down the rhythm it takes with the braking, combined with the way he turns and controls the car through the center of the corner and gets back on the throttle coming out of the turn.
Look even closer, and you'll see Gordon has led 2,438 laps. Johnson has been out front for 43.
"I've had the same setup that Jeff Gordon's won the pole with, and I've qualified 20th," Johnson said. "Kyle Busch has won, and I've known what his setups have been in the cars, and I've ran in the back of the pack.
"It's just a track that doesn't fit me, and I'm trying to do everything I can to get that right."
Kurt Busch understands. He goes to Lowe's Motor Speedway and feels as though he's sliding sideways. He goes to Bristol and becomes poetry in motion.
"[Jimmy] and I actually had a joke about that last year, how I feel when I go to Charlotte," Busch said. "He says, 'That's funny. I feel that way at Bristol.'" Why? Busch doesn't know the answer any more than he knows why he has an average finish of 22.0 at Martinsville.
"It's a hard question to answer," he said.
Johnson's crew chief, Chad Knaus, doesn't have the answer. He also doesn't believe Bristol is the albatross it appears to be for the No. 48 team. He offers a reminder that misfortune, such as getting caught up in somebody else's wreck (as often happens here), has taken away some good finishes.
He noted that, in a race there a few years ago, Johnson was running second with about 60 laps to go when Michael Waltrip sent him into the wall.
"That definitely was a car we could have won with," Knaus said.
OK, Johnson had a chance to win at Bristol once. But with the exception of the road courses, Johnson usually has a car capable of winning everywhere.
Knaus' main job this weekend might be that of team psychologist -- or confidence builder. Johnson's average finish in the past seven Bristol races is 23.4.
"If we just finished the last three races where we were running instead of having problems, the confidence would automatically be higher going into the race," Knaus said.
Johnson admits confidence is a factor. Instead of telling Knaus he "knows" what changes will make the car better between Turns 3 and 4, it's, "Well, I think so-and-so will work.'"
"It probably hurts me more during practice in being confident in what adjustments we need," Johnson said. "In my mind, it's about finding that rhythm and [to] stop making mistakes.
"It seems that if I make it to the halfway point, we end up with a decent result, so my goal is to really get to the halfway point, and from there we should be fine."
Some might say this is a critical stretch for Johnson. He's 13th in points and winless through the first four races, and he doesn't have testing to improve as he did a year ago.
But there is no reason to panic. Johnson was 13th coming into this race last season and 13th when he left after finishing 18th. He has led 177 laps this season, 101 more than he led in the first four races of 2008.
He's in much better shape to move forward, which should put the competition on notice.
"We have speed in the car," Johnson said. "We've shown that. Our teammates have shown that. Jeff Gordon is leading the points. We are a better company at this point in '09 than we were in '08. We just need to clean up our act and stop making mistakes."
Perhaps Bristol, the most unlikely of places, will be the turning point for him.
"We always hope to turn around our weak links, and obviously Bristol has been a weak link for us," Knaus said.
Kasey Kahne might have summed up Johnson's fortunes best.
"I don't know why he doesn't run so well at Bristol," he said. "I don't really know. I think he has probably been up front before there, and sometime he'll win there. He always wins at some point."
David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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